The Migration Threshold
No. 3 2013 July/September
Alexandr Gabuev

Senior Fellow and Chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program, Carnegie Moscow Center.



e-mail: [email protected],
Postal address: 16, Bldg. 1, Tverskaya Str., Moscow 125009, Russia

Moscow’s Policy in Central Asia and Russians’ Interests

Russia’s policy in Central Asia has been determined by the logic of interaction between great powers and international prestige for two decades after the breakup of the USSR. But illegal migration, or, rather, the public sentiment around it, is becoming such a significant factor in the domestic political situation that it can make Moscow revise its priorities in relations with Central Asian countries. Changes might impact even the Eurasian Economic Union project.


The updated Foreign Policy Concept approved by President Vladimir Putin on February 12, 2013, says: “Russia sees as a priority the task of establishing the Eurasian Economic Union aiming not only to make the best use of mutually beneficial economic ties in the CIS but also to become a model of association open to other states.” The reasons why integration based on the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been declared a priority of Russian foreign policy are quite obvious. On October 3, 2011, when the newspaper Izvestia published an article by Vladimir Putin (who was prime minister at the time) titled “A New Integration Project for Eurasia,” it became apparent that Putin’s mega task in a new political cycle would be the establishment of the Customs Union, to be followed by a more closely integrated Eurasian Union. The text was released after the September 24 announcement of the upcoming Medvedev-Putin reshuffle. The article set the tone for a series of election campaign publications by presidential hopeful Putin.

Russia’s drive towards Eurasian integration as the key foreign policy project is quite logical: it is explained by a change in the amount of resources available to the Kremlin for pursuing an active foreign policy and understanding its political weight and niche in the world system. That process ran through several phases during Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

The first one began with his coming to power and ended late in the fall of 2003. It heralded Russia’s new bid to fit into the Euro-Atlantic system as a democratic market economy and a partner of the European Union. The phone call to George Bush after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the president’s speech in German in the Bundestag were the benchmarks of the period. The first period ended in a number of pivotal events, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the “color revolution” in Georgia.

The second phase began with Moscow’s attempts to gain a larger role in world affairs by using fuel exports as leverage, stop the spreading of “color revolutions” and NATO’s expansion in the post-Soviet space, and strengthen Russian influence in the territory of the former USSR. As the flow of petrodollars grew, Russian leaders became increasingly confident that the country would soon become one of the greatest powers (albeit not the greatest one) in a multipolar world. The key benchmarks of that period were “gas wars” with Ukraine and Belarus, Putin’s Munich speech and the five-day war with Georgia in August 2008. The world economic crisis that hit Russia late in the autumn of 2008 brought down the curtain for that period.

The third, “Medvedev’s period” was ushered in as the new president began to repair damaged ties with the West and arranged “modernization alliances” amid falling oil prices. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Putin and members of his cabinet (in particular Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin) pursued a foreign policy line of their own, focusing on economic diplomacy. It was at that time that the premier was busy creating legislative groundwork for the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space (CES). The key events of that period included the signing by Presidents Medvedev and Obama of a new agreement to reduce strategic offensive armaments (New START treaty) on April 8, 2010, and the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Commission in November 2011.

The fourth phase featured a long-term uncertainty of the world situation, global economic recession and a falling demand for raw materials, a lack of extra revenue from raw materials exports which could have been used for foreign policy projects (this was aggravated by the shale gas revolution and re-division of the world market of hydrocarbons), growing instability and opposition sentiment inside the country. In these conditions, the Kremlin decided to channel all the available resources into strengthening the zone of its influence in the post-Soviet space. Moscow no longer aspires to control all the republics of the former Soviet Union except the Baltic ones (which are NATO and EU members).

Russia invites to integration projects those who are ready for and really wish economic rapprochement, if it finds this rapprochement advantageous. Ukraine is the only major exception. Moscow resorts to various measures (mostly economic compulsion, from high natural gas prices to trade wars) in the attempt to make Kiev join the Eurasian Union (EAU) and give up its course towards the European Union. Moscow views Ukraine as crucial in maintaining its great power status, with Sevastopol remaining the base of its Black Sea Fleet. Other factors behind Russia’s position are control over natural gas supplies to Europe and a unified defense industry.Russia’s policy towards Central Asia fully reflects this evolution. During the first phase up until 2004, Moscow was not very active in the regional affairs, largely due to a complex of factors that had emerged back in the Soviet era or after the collapse of the USSR and that automatically ensured Moscow’s influence. These included Russia’s large share in trade turnover and strong positions of Russian companies on the local markets; regional countries’ membership in pro-Russian bodies, such as the Eurasian Economic Community and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); the elites’ focus on interaction with Moscow as a priority partner; and Russian military presence (in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan). In the second and third phases, Russia joined other large players in the race for influence, the main rivals being the West (the interests of the U.S. and the European Union largely coincided) and China (the influence of Turkey and Iran was significant, but not crucial). Moscow’s priorities in Central Asia in 2004-2009 were the struggle against U.S. presence and prevention of projects to launch fuel exports to Europe.

To fulfill these objectives, Russia forged a tactical alliance with China which had never announced any serious ambitions with respect to Central Asia. In 2005, Moscow and Beijing, as members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), demanded that Washington name the date of the pullout of troops from Afghanistan and clarify the future of the U.S. military facilities in the region. Russia vigorously struggled against the project to build the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline (in 2007 it announced an alternative Caspian gas pipeline project and then increased the purchase price of Central Asian gas), supported the revolution in Kyrgyzstan against President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, and did not object to the construction of a Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline and a Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline.

Beginning from 2011, Russia’s approach to relations with Central Asia has been undergoing major changes. It has finally decided to rely on the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space as the key format to develop relations with privileged partners in the post-Soviet space. Russia henceforth began to compete for influence in the region not only with the West, but also with China: the integration format envisions protectionist duties from cheap Chinese imports for all of the Customs Union members, and a high level of economic integration unattainable for outsiders (Beijing has never been invited to the Customs Union or other similar organizations).

Naturally, Moscow had to offer really attractive terms of participation in the project which would help the elites of Kazakhstan and Belarus resolve problems of their own. And Moscow did so: control over the Eurasian Economic Commission would be equally divided between the three member-states and would not depend on the size of their economies. Each of the three countries would have the right to veto key decisions. Concessions were also made on duties inside the Customs Union (with the exception of hydrocarbons and some other goods).

Lastly, Russia offered its partners an attractive model for the EAU, which would ensure complete freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and workforce in the territory of the future union. That is, all the economic players would have access to the 165-million work force market and would thus be placed in equal conditions. The Belarusian and Kazakh elites found it attractive: Minsk received advantages for its exporters of agricultural products and machinery, while Astana had an edge in the competition of jurisdictions (Kazakhstan has a better investment climate and lower taxes).

The model proved to be so efficient, that Kyrgyzstan immediately made a bid to join the Customs Union (Bishkek’s readiness to join the EAU in 2015 at the latest was announced on October 19, 2011). In his article in Izvestia, Vladimir Putin mentioned the possibility to consider an application from one more country – Tajikistan. At that point, there was little doubt regarding the possibility of creating conditions for implementing the four freedoms (goods, services, capital and workforce).


In the Izvestia article, Vladimir Putin wrote openly and without any reservations about the freedom of movement of workforce within the EAU framework as a competitive advantage: the Common Economic Space will be based on “common visa and migration policies, which will make it possible to lift border control between our states. In fact, we are adapting the experience of the Schengen Agreement that benefits Europeans as well as everyone who comes to work, study, or holiday in the EU.” For the general public, the lifting of migration, border and other barriers, including what are known as labor quotas, will mean that they will have a free choice about where to live, study, or work. Incidentally, the Soviet Union with its system of residency permits did not offer such freedom.”

Apparently, when the article was being written in September 2011, the idea of equal opportunities on the CIS labor market (including the future members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) did not seem to be a problem to Moscow. Reservations would be voiced several months later. In the article titled “Russia: the Ethnicity Issue,” published by the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on January 23, 2012. Putin wrote: “Today many people are worried or even, let’s face it, irritated by the costs linked with mass migration, both immigration and domestic migration. Some are concerned that the creation of the Eurasian Union will lead to a surge in migration and consequently to the amplification of existing problems.”

This seemingly unexpected change of approach to the migration issue was probably a response to not only anti-migrant comments on the Izvestia article, but also to the change in the domestic political situation in Russia (at least this is how the public and authorities viewed it). The results of the parliamentary election on December 4, 2011, confirmed the plunging popularity of the ruling United Russia party and the Putin-Medvedev tandem and led to unprecedented protests by the Opposition. The Kremlin began to examine in earnest the cause of citizens’ resentment and tried to steal the protesters’ agenda and prevent various Opposition groups (Liberals, Leftists and Nationalists) from uniting in a large alliance.

According to sociologists, the idea to toughen migration legislation and combat the inflow of migrants was gaining popularity at that time. The Levada Center’s report released in November 2012, said 45 percent of the population felt “irritation, enmity or fear” towards migrants from southern republics (46 percent said they did not care, and a mere 8 percent said they felt positive emotions). Sixty-four percent of those polled called for expelling illegal migrants from Russia (compared with 55 percent six years ago), and 20 percent supported legalization of migrants, versus 31 percent in 2006. A January 2011 poll showed that 68 percent of Russians advocated limiting the number of visitors to the country.

Putin gave a vague answer to the question raised in the article and formulated as “close integration in the post-Soviet space as a real alternative to uncontrolled migration.” “Objectively, mass migration is rooted, as I said, in a huge gap in development and living conditions. We understand that the logical way to reduce migration – if not to eliminate it completely – is to curtail this inequality,” Putin wrote. “On a global scale, this nice and ethically impeccable position certainly seems utopian. However, there are no objective obstacles for us to implement this logic at home, in our historical space. One of the key tasks of Eurasian integration is to provide conditions so that millions of people could live a worthy life and develop,” Putin wrote. The author did not explain why a yet-to-be-created Eurasian Union would be able to accomplish the task which the EU has failed to achieve.

This article also mentioned other measures to control migration which had no direct bearing on the Eurasian project. Voters welcomed the strengthening of migration services’ police functions, tougher registration rules and sanctions for their violation (including criminal responsibility), the struggle against isolated ethnic ghettos, and the introduction of Russian language, culture and history exams for migrants. The Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) reported on February 1, 2012, that the above measures were supported by 77%, 75%, 79% and 67% of respondents, respectively. The tactical objective was accomplished: Vladimir Putin won the March 2012 presidential election. But the strategic mismatch of the interests of society and those of the authorities continued, which clearly manifested itself during the next large election campaign, namely the Moscow mayoral election on September 8, 2013.“NO MORE MIGRANTS!”

The Moscow mayoral election campaign was the most significant compared to other campaigns in the run-up to Single Voting Day on September 8, 2013. The election programs of all six candidates registered by the Moscow Election Commission had sections devoted to measures to limit the presence of migrants in the capital and combat illegal migration. But it was only Alexei Navalny’s program that called for introducing a visa regime with Central Asian states: he said he would bring forward the initiative to the federal government in case of his victory in the election.

The candidates’ attention to migration reflects the current public sentiment. The Levada Center published a report on July 11, 2013, according to which the excessive presence of migrants from former Soviet republics and the North Caucasus worried 55 percent of polled Muscovites above all. It was the key problem mentioned by the respondents, followed by the increase in public utilities tariffs (43 percent) and traffic jams (38 percent). Polls conducted in other Russian regions produce similar results. A Public Opinion Foundation poll, conducted on August 17-18, 2013, showed that 65 percent of Russians – mostly women and people with ultra-low income (below 4,000 rubles per month) and low income (up to 9,000 rubles per month) – were wary of migrants.

A Levada Center poll of July 3, 2013 showed that 68 percent of Russians viewed the migrant presence as “excessive.” VTsIOM quoted similar results in polls on August 1 and August 7, 2013: 74 percent of respondents said the presence of a large number of migrants was a negative thing, 57 percent said migration from CIS states should be stopped (compared to 44 percent in 2004), while 40 percent said migration was harmful for the Russian economy, and only 16 percent said it was positive.

To sum up, an overwhelming majority of Russians support the introduction of a visa regime with Central Asian countries, proposed by Opposition leader Alexei Navalny. According to a Levada Center report on July 3, 2013, the idea of a visa regime with countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus was backed by 84 percent of Russians, versus a mere 9 percent who opposed it.

So what is the real migration situation which Russians resent so much? There are no reliable statistics. A majority of analysts refer to Federal Migration Service (FMS) data gathered during the monitoring of migration cards to be filled in by visitors upon entry into the Russian Federation. Experts agree that the data is incomplete, because there are channels for smuggling illegal migrants into Russia through the border with Kazakhstan. Although passport control on the border is mandatory, there are many ways, all stemming from corruption, to circumvent the procedure. On the other hand, Russia has a visa-free regime with all Central Asian countries (except Turkmenistan), so to cross the border without showing one’s passport and to pay a bribe is ridiculous.

The FMS says there were slightly more than 10.3 million foreigners in Russia as of late December 2012. Of those, nine million stayed in the country for more than a month, while three million stayed for more than a year. FMS First Deputy Director Yekaterina Yegorova says 42 percent of foreigners officially arrived for the purpose not related to work, and just 17 percent designated in the migration cards that they had arrived to work in Russia. This figure is consistent with the migrant quota set by the government at 1.746 million for 2012.

Experts estimate the number of illegal labor migrants in Russia at four to seven million (the Migration Policy Concept signed by President Putin in June 2013 estimates their number at three to five million a year). Therefore, legal and illegal migrants do not exceed 10 percent of Russia’s able-bodied population (which stands at 75 million, according to the Rosstat Federal State Statistics Service). Also, a considerable portion of migrants come to Russia during the warm season and leave for their homeland as the cold spell begins.

Whereas in absolute numbers Russia is second to the U.S. (43 million migrants), according to the UN, and is slightly ahead of Germany, in relative numbers the Russian migration situation is far less serious compared with many other countries. For example, migrants account for 87 percent of Qatar’s population, 41 percent of Singapore’s population, 35 percent of Luxembourg’s population, 11.6 percent of Germany’s population, and 11 percent of Great Britain’s population (data provided by the UN and Eurostat). Even if we assume that all the officially registered 10.4 million migrants live in Russia permanently (which is not the case, yet it permits an adjustment for unaccounted illegal migration), the number of migrants will not exceed 7.2 percent of the population.

FMS statistics show that 80 percent of foreigners in Russia are CIS citizens, mostly Central Asia natives. According to the data of late 2012, there were 2.3 million citizens of Uzbekistan, 1.4 million Ukrainians, 1.1 million Tajiks, 620,000 Azerbaijanis and 540,000 citizens of Kyrgyzstan in the Russian Federation.

Migrants are the key source to replenish the diminishing able-bodied population in Russia; this trend resumed in 2007 and is expected to increase further. Rosstat predicts that the able-bodied population will shrink by ten million by 2025. A decrease in the able-bodied population over the next 15 years will not depend on the birth rate during this period: all the people who will enter the labor market within this timeframe are already born. Demographers predict a natural decrease in Russia’s labor resources at least until 2050. Consequently, Russia will experience a large deficit of labor in the foreseeable future.

The growing influx of migrants from Central Asia was triggered by the population decline in Russia (this country had had a shortage of hands since the early 2000s) and the growth of GDP, as the boom in the raw materials markets injected life into other sectors of the economy. At present, migrants compensate for Russia’s natural population decline, according to FMS estimates. In 2012, the Russian population increased by 292,400, with labor migrants accounting for the bulk of the increase; Rosstat reported 1.896 million births and 1.898 million deaths in the country over the year.

What is the cause of the growing hostility towards migrants, noted by sociologists? Demographers say the absolute number of migrants who arrived in Russia in the 2000s was much smaller compared with the influx of migrants in the 1990s (1.916 million versus 4.649 million). But the quality of migrants has changed significantly: whereas in the 1990s they included mostly ethnic Russians and non-Russian urban dwellers, now this country plays host to migrants (largely young people) from rural areas with alien behavior patterns, a poor knowledge of Russian and, sometimes, demonstrative religiosity. The irritation at migrants’ behavior is coupled with hostility towards North Caucasians. Although they are Russian citizens, the population of the rest of Russia perceives them in the same way as other migrants from Central Asia or the South Caucasus.A DECISION DELAYED

The Moscow mayoral election showed that Russian authorities may face a difficult dilemma in the near future. On the one hand, the development of the Eurasian Economic Union remains a geopolitical priority. In the conditions of global uncertainty, this integration project is one of the few chances for Russia to create a compact sphere of influence of its own in the post-Soviet space, whose maintenance will not require considerable resources. Removing customs and administrative borders (a daydream for many Russian officials) between EAU countries would be a logical chain in this process. Moscow thereby hopes to create a space under its control within a short period of time, where the economy and people would greatly depend on Russia and the Russian language.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Russians do not welcome rapprochement with Central Asian states and strongly object to having equal employment rights with citizens of those countries. Meanwhile, this is provided for by the Agreement on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, signed in 2011. Experts of the Eurasian Development Bank reckon that if Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan join the EAU, the number of legal labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan may increase by 360,000 and from Tajikistan by 890,000, plus an extra 50,000 migrants from Kazakhstan.

This forecast may well come true. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have posted an increase in their population but both lag far behind Russia in terms of per capita GDP (for Russia it is $14,000, based on nominal GDP; 50th place in the World Bank’s ranking in 2012). For Kyrgyzstan, per capita GDP stands at $1,160 (154th place), and for Tajikistan, $872 (161st place). Both countries depend on remittances from their migrants abroad: in Tajikistan, these remittances made up 35 percent of GDP, while in Kyrgyzstan, 15 percent of GDP in 2009, according to the World Bank. Therefore, any moves which might lead to a real increase in the number of migrants in Russia will further plunge the authorities’ popularity ratings. Coupled with approaching economic difficulties, this is fraught with undesirable political repercussions, including mass protests.

These contradictions are not easy to resolve. On the one hand, Moscow has already undertaken commitments to its partners, and renouncing them would mean backtracking on the integration project and damaging its prestige. On the other hand, the domestic political price of the struggle for international prestige may prove too high. Delaying the admission of Kyrgyzstan and especially Tajikistan in the EAU would only be a band-aid solution. Moscow is not interested in fully stopping the migration channels from Central Asia (although unofficially, it has already threatened to do that in case of the aggravation of relations with partners in the region, as happened during the conflict with Dushanbe over the detention of Russian pilots in 2011). The surplus of unemployed able-bodied male population is destabilizing the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, which Moscow fears may bring Islamists to power.

A comprehensive solution to migration problems in Russia does not seem possible without systemic reforms in the country. The calculation of the required number of migrants should be based on a clear understanding of the country’s place in the global division of labor in the short and medium term. Also, Russia needs to answer the crucial question: Does it intend to increase its global competitiveness by boosting labor productivity and the number of skilled personnel (including specialists from foreign countries), or will it develop extensively, replacing local low-skilled labor with equally low-skilled migrants? The answer will indicate an optimum population for the selected economic model and the number of migrants required. The experience of developed raw material producing countries with higher labor productivity, such as Canada or Australia, shows that Russia will need migrants anyway.